Director Steven Soderbergh has claimed Side Effects will be his last theatrical feature film, which makes it a double disappointment.
One: Soderbergh has made some terrific movies (Contagion, The Limey, Out of Sight, Traffic) and his contributions to cinema would be missed.
Two: Side Effects does not exactly qualify as leaving on a triumphant note.
Soderbergh, working from a script by Scott Z. Burns, delivers a genre mash-up, a murder mystery that strives to address the social ills that attend prescription pharmaceuticals. This has the capacity to be a hot-button movie playing on the all-too-pertinent link between violence and prescription meds.
But Soderbergh seems to be gingerly avoiding head-on confrontation. Instead, he bottles a more mundane thriller of the type that might have appealed to Brian De Palma a decade or two earlier.
Here, the featured depressive is Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a young woman who should be happier about her impending reunion with her hunky husband Martin (Channing Tatum), finishing up a four-year prison term for insider trading.
Instead, she plunges into a depression that becomes serious when she steers her car into a parkade wall.
Her attending psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), is apparently sincere in his desire to help Emily, but he has an unfortunate penchant for being fast on the draw with his prescription pad. (The film duly exposes the relationship between pharmaceutical companies and doctors with a quietly subversive scene in which Banks is offered $50,000 over an expensive lunch to deliver patients willing to participate in drug trials.)
At Emily's request, he prescribes an anti-depressant for her. It turns out that one of the drug Ablixa's side effects is: May cause violent death to anyone in the patient's vicinity.
The heat is now on the good doctor to prove he wasn't lax in his patient care. The screws start to tighten further when he finds himself in conflict with Emily's previous doctor, Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a shrink femme fatale whose previously friendly consultations take a turn for the toxic.
Soderbergh's penchant for bouncing his way through different genres serves him well, since the film effortlessly transforms midway from medical drama to mystery-thriller with deft cunning.
Rooney Mara, fresh from playing the more demonstrably anti-social heroine of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake, has a proven talent for portraying a placid surface masking stormy turmoil.
Yet the film is altogether too subtle in its portrayal of an over-medicated society where people exchange prescription med advice the way housewives used to trade recipes.
Eventually, we're asked to invest in Jonathan Banks and his struggle to regain his normal life. But one is hard-pressed to care somehow.
Caution: This film may leave viewers feeling comfortably numb.
Selected excerpts of reviews of Side Effects.
"If Side Effects, an immensely pleasurable thriller centring around psychotropic drugs, really is Steven Soderbergh's final big-screen film, as the director claims it will be, then he has peaked in the Valley of the Dolls."
-- Melissa Anderson, Village Voice
"In most of his films, Soderbergh comes off as a seeing brain, with one thesis idea per movie and an unwillingness (or inability) to change course when he knows that his thesis isn't working. He's not a one-trick pony, only a one-trick-per-show pony. But in Side Effects, he's mixing up conventions, playing cheerfully in the shallow end of the pool."
- David Edelstein, New York Magazine
"The emotional depths of the film's first half get bludgeoned by the simplistically lurid twists and turns, which hinge on some egregiously homophobic stereotypes that Soderbergh's clinical touch fails to complicate."
- Keith Uhlich, Time Out New York
"What begins as a bodaciously styled woman's picture transforms into a rather square wrong-man procedural that pushes too hard, and in multiple directions, on the metaphoric idea of the side effect."
- Ed Gonzalez, Slant